Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Queer Bible Commentary

The period from about 1800 to 1933 was a golden age in Germany for scholarship of all kinds. Among the fields that rejoiced in substantial advances were Biblical studies and the history & theory of homosexuality. Curiously, these two interests hardly ever intersected. Biblical scholars were mainly concerned with furthering the discoveries of the historical-critical school, which devastated the conventional hermeneutics of the Scriptures. For their part, gay scholars were seeking to interpret data from the past so as to lay the foundations for a more positive understanding of homosexuality. We are still indebted to their pioneering work.

Practitioners of both these disciplines seem to have assumed that there was little need to go into the views of the Bible regarding “sodomy” (as the matter was still conventionally termed), for the texts clearly condemned it. Hence golden-age contributions, as recorded in Manfred Herzer’s invaluable German-language bibliography, were very scarce.

So matters stood until the 1950s, when some parties within the Church of England intervened. The results appeared in Canon D.S. Bailey’s book “Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition” (1955). Bailey concluded that a number of passages, which had been confidently assumed to condemn homosexual conduct, did not do so--or were at least ambivalent. This tendency to reexamination--or as some would term airbrushing--culminated in John Boswell’s well-known monograph of 1980.

These efforts seemed solidly buttressed by philology and history, and as a result some began to assert--counterintuitively--that the Bible was actually gay friendly. These claims found a ready audience in such denomination-based gay organizations as Integrity, Dignity, and Axios, as well as in Troy Perry’s Metropolitan Community Church, which established thriving congregations in a number of cities.

Yet when the bearers of the new eirenic dispensation expounded their views to groups of more traditionally oriented Christians and Jews, they made little headway. It turned out that there was no consensus that the Bible had been successfully detoxified. In fact, for most traditional observers the "clobber passages" retained their force. In the light of this resistance, certainty proved more elusive than the first enthusiasts had assumed.

At the same time feminist Bible scholars were at work on a more ambitious project. They could not deny that many passage in the Scriptures were downright misogynistic, reflecting a pervasive patriarchal ideology of subordination. The more virulent passages were termed “texts of terror.” In order to recover what they continued to hold was a genuine humanistic and liberatory impetus in the Bible, they needed to confront these misogynistic elements directly.

Some scholars pointed out that the current fashion in Bible translation for gender-neutral language, replacing “he” with “he and she,” or even avoiding gender determination in general, was counterproductive because the alteration served to conceal underlying male bias. This tendency, rooted in a remote civilization, must be displayed for what it was, and not swept beneath the rug.

Accordingly, GLBT Biblical scholars came to see the need for a more nuanced and complex approach, contrasting with the simple refutations of the Bailey-Boswell era. What was needed was full commentary for the twenty-first century. In 2006 this need was addressed in “The Queer Bible Commentary,” a massive volume of 877 pages, edited by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache (SCM Press). This tome comes with a hefty price tag of $100. Through an Internet search, I was able to acquire a copy of the QBC for a good deal less.

Unlike the earlier era of gay biblical scholarship, in which independent scholars were numerous, the thirty-one QBC contributors are mostly professionals, with eleven being university professors, four teaching in seminaries, and eleven serving as pastors in GLBT congregations. Four are Jews, and a number of the Christian contributors show evidence of pondering Jewish scholarship and approaches.

This impressive roster of contributors signals the rise of a genuine interpretive community, a network of thinkers and scholars who are united by a common pursuit, notwithstanding differences in detail. This advance contrasts with the more scattergun approach of the second half of the twentieth century, in which a number of more-or-less isolated individuals struggled against the powerful mainstream current, a current that either disparaged or ignored their concerns.

For those of a certain age, like myself, the word "queer" carries a negativity that remains repellent. In order to access the riches of this book, however, one must set aside this queasiness. A more serious problem is the scope of the term queer among those who prefer it. Is it simply an umbrella term encompassing gay-male, lesbian, bisexual, and gender-variant individuals, or is it something more--an all-purpose term for people who march to a different drummer? It may even apply, some say, to everyone, in the sense that we all harbor some eccentricity or other.

A queer approach has the advantage of broadening the perspective. In this way it becomes clear that what it is involved is not just the handful of proof texts singled out by the Bailey-Boswell crowd, but a much broader conspectus. Moreover, the queer perspective has the advantage--or so it would seem--of not importing the heterosexual-homosexual dichotomy, which is deemed anachronistic. In their texts, however a number of QBC writers freely use the terms “heterosexual” and “heterornomative,” showing that the older terminology is not so easily discarded.

For some time Biblical scholars have decried any resort to what they term “eisegesis.” If exegesis is the leading forth of information which is genuinely present in a text, eisegesis inserts meanings that are not there. Sometimes, of course, this contrast is a little too convenient. “I practice legitimate exegesis, while you--my opponent--have slipped into eisegesis." Still, the term “queering” suggests that one may cross the boundaries a little too freely. As a result, the interpretations advanced may be too speculative or “far out” to gain traction in the larger world of Biblical hermeneutics.

Courageously, the QBC authors have chosen to examine all the canonical books--66 according to the traditional reckoning--that collectively comprise what used to be termed the Old and New Testaments. In recent years, the term Old Testament has been largely abandoned, on the grounds that it incorporates a supersessionist agenda in which those books are simply treated as precursors of Christianity rather than as the autonomous creation of the ancient Israelite people. Accordingly, this--the larger part of the Scriptures--is now usually termed the Hebrew Bible or the Tanakh. This leaves the term New Testament high and dry so to speak, though it is still commonly used. The editors of the QBC have opted for a compromise solution, which emerged in seminaries in the 1990s. The arrange the individual books under “Part I: The First Testament” and “Part II: The Second Testament.” Evidently, this solution proved satisfactory to the Jewish contributors to the volume.

Recent scholarship, particularly with regard to the Hebrew Bible (the “First Testament”) has overturned many traditional assumptions. The scholars known as minimalists challenge the historicity of the scriptural texts, holding that most were written centuries after the events they purport to describe. They point out that there is no independent evidence for the existence of Moses, Joshua, Saul, David, or Solomon. In all likelihood, none of them actually existed. The exodus story of the sojourn in Egypt and the subsequent conquest of Canaan is likewise rejected.

With some reservations, the authors of the QBC tend to accept these revisionist views. This acceptance means that the old dichotomy between Canaanite “fertility cults” and strict Israelite monotheism can no longer be maintained. This change has an important consequence because some homophobic passages (such as the ones in Leviticus 18 and 20) can no longer be ascribed to anti-Canaanite sentiment, a ploy that tended to restrict their force to that (long-vanished) context.

As far as I can tell, the writers judge recent advances in New Testament scholarship of less moment. They do not feel the need to discuss the work of the Jesus Seminar on the authenticity of passages in the Gospels. They also do not deal with the attempts to reconstruct the source document Q, and Morton Smith’s still problematic assertion that he found a lost (and cryptically homoerotic) text from the Gospel of Mark.

The chief accomplishment of the QBC is its uncovering of a pervasive pattern of abjection. Disparagement of same-sex conduct may indeed be limited to a few passages. But these cannot be examined in isolation. Rather, they must take their place in a larger context of discriminatory social hierarchy in which most women, men perceived as weak, non-Israelites, and all those tainted with otherness are subject to a relentless process of inferiorization. Those who find themselves in an inferiorized group but who still cherish the Bible contend that this massive negativity is overbalanced by the powerful liberatory message of justice and dignity espoused by the prophets and by Jesus.

According to one definition, “education which is liberatory encourages learners to challenge and change the world, not merely uncritically adapt themselves to it. The content and purpose of liberatory education is the collective responsibility of learners, teachers, and the community alike who, through dialogue, seek political, as well as economic and personal empowerment. Programs of liberatory education support and compliment larger social struggles for liberation.” Burdened as it is with so much negativity, can the Bible really help to accomplish this goal? Assuming that liberatory education is the aim, would it not be best to approach the task more directly, without having to shoulder oppressive baggage inherited from an era that has long passed? 

That said, we turn to some more specific critical points. In its day-to-day practice, the Christian ministry has long emphasized a strategy of relevance, in which Bible texts and theological principles are brought up to date by citing contemporary parallels. As the QBC writers point out, in the pastoral mainstream such seeming fidelity to the Biible is often selective and distorted, as when “family values” are reduced to the slogan of “one man, one woman.” Many Bible worthies had more than one wife, with Solomon ostensibly holding the record with 700 (together with 300 concubines). In the Jewish pastoral tradition midrashic principles sometimes lead to similar selectivity.

While they protest against anachronism in traditional interpretation, the QBC writers are not above some indulgences of their own in the realm of present-mindedness. Thus one commentator labels Joseph (he of the coat of many colors) as “a flaming queen.” Could it be that Joseph was just a dandy, a time-honored role? In another flight of extravagance Yahweh and Moses are portrayed as gay-male lovers. On a higher intellectual plane, the postmodern insights of such figures as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler are retrojected back into a remote world where their applicability is contestable. This practice, it would appear, is the downside of “queering.”

In principle one must applaud the attention that Christian Biblical scholars are now giving to Jewish hermeneutics of the First Testament. Some writers, though, in their newfound enthusiasm fail to distinguish between the sober peshat tradition (which seeks carefully to attend to the text) and the flights of fancy found in the Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts. There is also a tendency to endorse folk etymologies and other questionable understandings of the Hebrew text. Allegorical and fanciful Jewish traditions must be examined with the same skepticism as that applied to the web of speculation and wishful thinking that characterizes Christian medieval hermeneutics.

Another unconvincing feature is the endorsement of the current campaign to desexualize the male and female cult prostitutes, the kedeshim and kedeshot. Several generations of biblical scholars have held thast the kedeshim, or holy ones, were male cult prostitutes.

Some feminist scholars seem uncomfortable with any discussion of prostitution. Yet the Hebrew Bible luxuriantly documents the custom, which provides, among other things, a major metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh. A prostitute, Rahab, played an important role in the tale of Joshua’s conquest. Another married the prophet Hosea. The New Testament frequently decries "porneia." The bible is saturated with the phenomenon.

Among a number of texts, the following (Deut. 23:18) is key: "No Israelite woman shall be a kedeshah, nor shall any Israelite man be a kadesh. You shall not bring the fee of a zonah (whore) or the pay of a kelebh (dog) into the house of the Lord." The kedeshah/zonah is one linkage, and the kadesh/kelebh one parallels it. There is independent evidence that such kelebhim were male hustlers; at all events, dogs in the ordinary sense do not generally receive fees. Thus there are two types of cult prostitutes, female and male, and two types of ordinary prostitutes, female and male. Yet those who wish to erase the stigma of sex for hire from the kedeshot.

As Warren Johansson remarked in his classic article in the “Encyclopedia of Homosexuality”: the term kadesh "occurs as a common noun at least six times (Deuteronomy 23:18, I Kings 14:24, 15: 12 and 22:46, 11 Kings 23:7, Job 36:14). It can also be restored on the basis of textual criticism in II Kings 23:24 (= Septuagint of II Chronicles 35: 19a) and in Hosea 1:12." Yet the commentators of the QBC think that the sexual services these men are characterized as offering are merely slurs invented by their opponents. To speak plainly, this method of eliminating passages one doesn’t like is just too convenient.

The editors have completely missed another important discovery. A quarter of a century ago I had the honor of publishing in “The Cabirion,” a quarterly I then edited, an article by my friend Warren Johansson. This article, which deals with the context of the word “racha” in Matthew 5:22, is now accessible at Indegayforum.com, and in a shortened version at the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (Williamapercy.com).

Here is the textual source: Matthew 5:21: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment.

Matthew 5:22: "But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Racha, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire."

Translators and commentators have long been puzzled by the word "racha," which is left in the original in the King James version. Clearly racha was a term of disparagement, some sort of insult. In a general sense, one may conjecture that the word is related to a Hebrew term meaning "empty," "empty-headed," or "brainless." That would parallel the imprecation "thou fool" in the last clause of Matthew 5:22.

If Johansson is right, as he seems to be, then the teaching ascribed to Jesus is that his followers should not insult men, impugning their masculinity by labeling them “softies,” that is, passives or effeminates, types of persons generally disparaged at the time. "What the text in Matthew demonstrates," Johansson concludes, "is that he forbade acts of violence, physical and verbal, against those to whom homosexuality was imputed, in line with the general emphasis on self-restraint and meekness in his teachings." Warren Johansson cautions that none of his analysis implies that Jesus accepted or approved of homosexual conduct. Condemnation of homophobic slurs does not necessarily entail approval of homosexual behavior, as some overenthusiastic gay-Christian admirers of Johansson’s piece have concluded. All the same, Johansson’s discovery seems to preclude the common perception that Jesus did not say “one word” about homosexuality. In fact, according to Matthew he did say one word: racha.

With its graphic personal asides, extravagances, and oftentimes sheer creativity, the QBC ranks as the most entertaining Bible commentary I have read. That is not necessarily a compliment.

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2 Comments:

Blogger The Gay Species said...

I think "eisigesis" applies. For entertainment, I prefer the classics or porn, which it appears QBC tries to approximate.

4:08 PM  
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